The term “bully” may bring back memories of playground scenes from small kid time. But bullying isn’t just a childhood phenomenon. Sadly, it’s a common practice in the workplace. According to a 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an estimated 53.5 million Americans, or 35 percent of the workforce, are victims of bullying at work.
Workplace bullying takes on many forms including exclusion from workplace or after-hours activities, treating employees rudely, and unwarranted criticism. It can be difficult for managers to recognize or know how to respond to bullying behavior. So, more often than not, the behavior is ignored or overlooked.
That’s what happened recently when Miami Dolphin lineman Jonathan Martin complained about being bullied by teammates. (Yes, even a six-foot-five, 312 pound professional football player can be the victim of bullying.) It is reported that not only did Miami Dolphins coaches ignore the complaint from Martin, they also encouraged teammates to “toughen up” the player. The relentless bullying Martin received from one player in particular, Richie Incognito, led Martin to twice consider suicide before leaving the team mid-way through the season to seek psychological help. The incident has since become national news and exposed the Dolphins to legal liability.
Although there are no laws that specifically prohibit bullying, issues for which employers have been found liable include: a hostile work environment, discrimination against protected categories (such as race, sexual orientation, and disability), and retaliation. “Not knowing” about bullying is not an adequate defense for employers. Under the premise of “vicarious liability,” an employer can be found responsible for the actions of its employees.
Tips for addressing bullying in the workplace
Even if your workplace has little in common with the NFL, here are a few pointers on how you can minimize your company’s exposure to legal liabilities.
Actively promote a positive workplace culture
A positive work environment doesn’t happen by accident—it is created when company leadership sets the tone for how employees are expected to treat one another. Because the NFL has created and encouraged a culture where hazing, teasing, and bullying is an accepted practice, the Miami Dolphins incident is sadly not an unexpected or rare occurrence. Don’t leave your workplace culture to chance; make clear what type of behavior is and is not permitted in your company. Set a policy in your employee handbook that not only defines bullying but expressly prohibits it. Make sure it includes a process for reporting and dealing with allegations while prohibiting retaliation against complainants.
Promptly investigate complaints of bullying
If you do receive a direct complaint or hear rumors of bullying occurring at your worksite, don’t ignore it. The best thing to do is take immediate action. Time will not fix bullying behavior. In fact, the longer the bullying persists, the greater the damages to the victim and the greater the potential liability to your company.
Train supervisors how to identify and address bullying
Company policies mean little if supervisors can’t enforce them. Consider training supervisors on how to identify bullying, fairly investigate claims while maintaining privacy, and discipline offenders.
Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue with real costs – not only from lawsuits but also in terms of productivity, morale, employee turnover, absenteeism, and possibly worker’s compensation. Learn from the mistakes of organizations like the Miami Dolphins and tackle workplace bullying behavior head-on.
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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Readers should first consult their attorney, accountant or adviser before acting upon any information in this article.